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Effects of Fluorocarbons in Ski Wax on Humans and the Environment

Stability Concerns of Fluorinated hydrocarbons

Fluorinated hydrocarbons (FOC’s) are molecules which contain carbon-fluorine (C-F) bonds. FOC’s have been used over several decades in a variety of industrial products. Some include pesticides, lubricants, refrigerants, paints, drugs and ski and snowboard waxes.

As with all larger polymeric molecules, it originally was believed that larger fluorinated hydrocarbons were inert and did not pose any threats.  New research suggests otherwise.  The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report indicating “FOC’s are not biologically inert and exhibit toxic effects on humans and animals and impact the overall ecosystem health.” There is now evidence that microbes are capable of degrading and detoxifying fluorinated hydrocarbons, as well as the potential for enzyme systems to break carbon fluorine bonds exist in the molecules. As a result, the inert molecules, once described as harmless, can actually break down into smaller, toxic molecules through ordinary processes.

Not only do microbes and enzymes break down the fluorocarbons, but Ultraviolet (UV) Light and heat can do the same. Overheating a fluorinated ski or snowboard wax with a standard waxing iron will break down the larger molecules in a manner similar to the microbes. Since UV Light works the same, any wax left on the hill will break down over time.  These smaller particles remain in the snow, and as the snow melts they find their way to streams, lakes, and oceans.

Environmental Impact

To make fluorinated Hydrocarbons polymers used in ski wax, smaller molecules of FOC’s are used as precursors. Many studies found traces of these precursors in food, human blood,  and human milk. Surprisingly high concentrations were determined in fish, seals, sea birds and even in polar bears from the Arctic. It is not fully understood how the pollutants travel around the world, but the pattern suggests that waterways act as an excellent means of transportation.

Many manufacturers use these precursors in the production of fluorinated ski waxes, and therefore are susceptible to the degradation by UV Light, heat, and enzymes.  As a result, these ski and snowboard waxes might be considered a cause for pollution.

Effects on Humans and Animals

These smaller fluorinated hydrocarbons can also accumulate inside the human body.  High levels of the molecules can be toxic and have negative health effects.  Data from animal studies indicate that they can cause several types of tumors and neonatal death.  Traces of toxicity were also found in the immune, liver, and endocrine systems.

Additionally, the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Teflon (PTFE), another fluorocarbon, requires that no smoking occur in areas where the material is stored or handled. Inhalation of fumes can cause the temporary condition of “Polymer Fume Fever”, with flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, and malaise.

There have been reports that ski wax technicians working for World Cup Race teams possessing median levels of one compound specific to fluorocarbons that were 45 times higher than the general population. Exposure could be risky, especially to thousands of junior ski racers and parents who wax with fluorinated ski waxes day after day without the proper precautions.

Alternative waxes

As a result of the possible environmental and health effects associated with fluorinated ski wax, some alternative ski and snowboard waxes have been formulated. Green Ice Ski Wax has a fluoro-free race wax, which has been proven to be equally as effective without any issues.  They also sell a 100% biodegradable wax available which eliminates the negative health and environmental impacts entirely.

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